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April 15th: What Are You Worth?

Robin Kahler is a patient who was diagnosed with affective bipolar disorder in 1988. She works from her home in Tucson, Arizona, as an ...Read More

Back in the 1960’s my Aunt Nancy did our income taxes at our chrome kitchen table, the one with the yellow vinyl chairs that weighed 15 pounds each.

“I don’t know how you can raise two kids on forty-dollars a week. She’d say. “You’re under the National Poverty Level again, this year.”

“What’s that mean, mom?” My little brother asked.

“It means we’re poorer than poor.” Mom answered.

I know you’ve heard this before; but we didn’t feel poor. Our little apartment in the projects was decorated better than most. We had curtains where others had dingy brown paper shades. We had a few throw rugs where others had thin black rubber tiles. Our apartment was clean and cozy.

I knew some people who had nicer things. I’d seen that plush toilet paper with the tiny blue flowers printed on it at my aunt’s house. I tore off a small square of it and folded it neatly into the heel of my shoe. Later I showed it to my mother. “Look at that! Fancy flowers on the toilet paper!” That truly must be wealth, I’d thought.

I knew from reading my Nancy Drew books, that there were still others who possessed even better things. Nancy Drew owned a car. She had her own bedroom. She had a housekeeper who cooked fancy meals for them. But she didn’t have a mother. Carson Drew was a widower.

Having a mom was better. My own mother may not have been “worth much” by monetary standards; but I place her up there with our priceless gems. Her value was worth more than the Hope Diamond, because one of the things that she did give to us was, Hope.

We had a father…somewhere. He was bipolar and he spent most of his time wandering the country, fishing from the back of his pick-up truck. We’d get a letter a few times a year.

What I enjoyed most about my mother was her creativity. She’d make a pot of popcorn and we’d sit on the floor while she curled my hair. We baked cakes and cookies and pies together. One time I made a fancy “Nancy Drew style luncheon,” for my mom and her high school friend. We had a fine time that day. Sometimes she’d play a game of checkers with my brother. Or help him fly a kite.

On the third Friday of every month, we would walk downtown and have dinner at Horn N’ Hardart’s. Our nickels would buy us macaroni and cheese with fish cakes from the Automat. The tables there were shiny and the chairs were bright red. On Sunday we went to church and in the summertime we had picnics at the park. One time we splurged on a ferry to see the Statue of Liberty.

I know my mom must have been tired. She worked at Woolworth’s six days a week and two of those days didn’t end until the store closed at night. She traveled to work on the bus and she spent many days waiting for it while standing in the rain or the snow.

We aren’t “under the poverty level” anymore. But we are still as rich as we ever were, because now we have our memories.

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